How to Teach Theme in Elementary School

Analyzing the theme of a story is a higher-level skill that requires critical thinking. The theme of a story is the lesson or message we can learn and apply to our own lives. Typically, themes are not stated explicitly. Readers have to analyze how the character responds to the plot events to determine what the character learned. Readers then generalize this lesson to determine how they can apply it to their own lives. Analyzing the theme of a story helps readers go beyond the text to gain meaning and empathy. In this post, I’ll share some tips and strategies for how to teach theme.

What Students Need To Know

Students need to understand what theme is. They should also be able to identify common themes in stories including compassion, good vs. evil, honesty, and working hard.

How Teachers can Help Students Understand Theme

To identify and explain a theme, the first step is to look at key events in the plot to analyze what the character learned. First, identify the problem and solution. Then ask yourself, β€œWhat lesson did the character learn?” After you identify the lesson the character learned, you can generalize the lesson to apply it to your life. This is the theme.

Colored chart showing the evolution of developing theme in literature for teachers to learn how to teach theme

Differentiation

If students are having trouble identifying theme, they may need more reinforcement of prerequisite skills. It is essential that students understand plot structure before delving into theme. Students also need to have a strong understanding of tracking character development.  For differentiation, use graphic organizers to help students organize their thoughts while identifying plot elements. Oral discussions and guided questions with teachers and peers can also help students learn to analyze story themes.

How to Teach Theme

I recommend spending at least two full weeks focusing on this skill. Here is the recommended lesson layout and schedule for teaching plot structure:

Teaching Theme: Week 1

Week 1 is focused on using genuine mentor texts and picture books. Students will learn that analyzing the plot will lead them to understand the lesson the main character learns and will help them determine the theme of the story.  Students will learn to identify these elements in engaging and relatable picture books. Students will also focus on practicing this key skill in their independent reading. Applying these skills to students’ independent reading should be a large focus of not only this unit, but also in weeks to come. Here is the typical layout of what this week could look like. Lessons may vary depending on the grade.

(Please Note: Common Core Standards combine summarizing fiction with theme. Some state-specific standards do not combine these skills.)

Day 1: Introduce key vocabulary surrounding this skill. Vocabulary should include problem, solution, character development, lesson, and theme. Review a common story everyone is familiar with. This can be a fairytale such as Cinderella or Little Red Riding Hood. Walk through the process of how to map out what a character learns. Model identifying the problem and how the character responds to the problem, the solution, and what life lesson the main character takes away from their experience. Next, model how to take this life lesson and apply it to a general theme. 

Day 2-3: Select a read-aloud with a clear lesson and theme. Work with your students to map out what a character learns. Model identifying the problem and how the character responds to the problem, the solution, and what life lesson the main character takes away from their experience. Next, model how to take this life lesson and apply it to a general theme. 

Day 4: Read another book with a clear lesson and theme. Students work in partners or small groups to map out what the character learns, how the character responds to the problem, the solution, and what life lesson the main character takes away from their experience. Model how to take this life lesson and apply it to a general theme.

Day 5: Students read a fiction picture book of their choosing. (Note: I recommend sticking to short picture books so students have the opportunity to read the entire book.) Students work together to identify the theme using the same process as prior days.

Teaching Theme: Week 2

Week two is focused on using leveled passages to identify and analyze the theme of a story. Throughout the week, you will be teaching your students to use text evidence to support their answers. You will also be scaffolding the assignments and increasing text difficulty, with the goal being to help students read passages throughout the entire grade level band. During this week, the focus will also be on answering theme questions that align with standards and state assessments. 

teacher with anchor chart showing how to teach students to find a theme in literature
Review the skill with an anchor chart students can refer back to.

Day 1: Introduce the theme anchor chart. Read aloud the Mentor Text My Own Self. Model identifying the elements that lead readers to determine the theme by using the graphic organizer and questions. Emphasize that identifying and understanding theme can help us take meaning from stories we read.

Day 2: Select a story in the mid-range of the text complexity band. Make the story and question set poster size or project the text and questions. Read the story as a class, then work together to answer the questions.

Day 3: Students complete a passage and question set in partners. I recommend choosing a text in the mid-range of the text complexity band. Always review work as a class or in groups.

Day 4: Students complete a passage at the low range of the text complexity band independently. Be sure to review student work. If students did not get answers correct, ensure you make time to review with students independently or in small groups.

reading passages and question sets for showing teachers how to teach theme to students
Scaffold leveled passages to increase student independence with grade-level texts.

Day 5-6: Continue to assign increasingly more complex passages. Continue to assess and review work.

Day 7: By the end of the unit, most of your class should be showing mastery of the passages. This is the time to give the assessment. I recommend giving both assessment passages together, but you can also separate the passages and use the different levels to differentiate.

*Follow your students’ lead. These lessons may take more or less time. Do not move on to subsequent lessons until your students are showing progress.

Resources for Week 2:

Common Core & Other State Standards:

  • Recount Stories: Folktales & Fairytales - 2nd & 3rd RL.2.2 RL.3.2 Printable & Digital Google Slides Distance Learning Pack
    Recount Stories: Folktales & Fairytales – 2nd & 3rd RL.2.2 RL.3.2 Printable & Digital Google Slides Distance Learning Pack
    $9.50
  • Theme in Stories Plays & Poems - RL.4.2 & RL.5.2 - Print & Digital - RL4.2 RL5.2
    Theme in Stories Plays & Poems – RL.4.2 & RL.5.2 – Print & Digital – RL4.2 RL5.2
    $10.50

Florida B.E.S.T Aligned

  • Story Morals - 1st Grade Florida BEST Standards - ELA.1.R.1.2
    Story Morals – 1st Grade Florida BEST Standards – ELA.1.R.1.2
    $5.50
  • Theme - 2nd & 3rd Grade Florida BEST Standards - B.E.S.T. ELA.2.R.1.2/3.R.1.2
    Theme – 2nd & 3rd Grade Florida BEST Standards – ELA.2.R.1.2 & ELA.3.R.1.2
    $9.00
  • Theme Development - 4th & 5th Grade Florida BEST Standards - ELA.4.R.1.2/5.R.1.2
    Theme Development – 4th & 5th Grade Florida BEST Standards – ELA.4.R.1.2/5.R.1.2
    $10.00

How to Differentiate while Teaching Theme

Visuals are key! Use graphic organizers and charts to track events relating to theme throughout the story. This provides structure and a visual for students who struggle with organizing this information and answering open-ended questions.

Growth By Grade

 Kindergarten1st Grade2nd Grade3rd Grade4th Grade5th Grade
Common CoreCCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.K.2 With prompting and support, retell familiar stories, including key details.CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.1.2 Retell stories, including key details, and demonstrate understanding of their central message or lesson.CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.3.2 Recount stories, including fables, folktales, and myths from diverse cultures; determine the central message, lesson, or moral and explain how it is conveyed through key details in the text.CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.3.2 Recount stories, including fables, folktales, and myths from diverse cultures; determine the central message, lesson, or moral and explain how it is conveyed through key details in the text.CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.4.2 Determine a theme of a story, drama, or poem from details in the text; summarize the text.CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.5.2 Determine a theme of a story, drama, or poem from details in the text, including how characters in a story or drama respond to challenges or how the speaker in a poem reflects upon a topic; summarize the text.
Florida B.E.S.T.ELA.K.R.1.1 Describe the main character(s), setting, and important events in a story.ELA.1.R.1.2 Identify and explain the moral of a story.ELA.2.R.1.2 Identify and explain a theme of a literary text.ELA.3.R.1.2 Explain a theme and how it develops, using details, in a literary text..ELA.4.R.1.2 Explain a stated or implied theme and how it develops, using details, in a literary text.ELA.5.R.1.2 Explain the development of stated or implied theme(s) throughout a literary text.

Strategies for Reinforcing Theme by Grade

Kindergarten: Focus on understanding basic plot elements including characters, setting, and events. 

First Grade: Use picture books with clear lessons to identify the moral of the story. Explain what the moral means and how they could apply the moral to their own life. Use familiar stories such as fairytales and fables. 

2nd Grade: Use a graphic organizer to retail the main events from fairytales, folktales, and fables. Discuss what lesson the main character learned and how students can apply this lesson to their own lives.

3rd Grade: Use a graphic organizer to map out the story plot. Discuss and write about the lesson the main character learned and how they can apply this lesson to their own lives.

4th & 5th Grade: Summarize a fictional story. Discuss how the events lead to a stated or implied theme. Reflect on the meaning of the theme. Generalize the theme into a common theme among stories.

I hope these strategies help you and your students.

Julie Magicore Signature

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